Neapolitan presepe at the Italian-American Museum (NYC)

The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. Unlike the nativity scenes we are used to, however, they tend to incorporate a much larger cast of characters, most of whom were not present in the biblical narratives of the nativity. These can include both Christian and pagan mythological characters, as well as symbolic scenes from peasant life. 

This antique presepe is found in the Italian-American Museum on Mulberry Street in New York City.

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Italy or East Harlem?

“For the most part, however, the continuity of faith and devotion which the parish journal made explicit was seen as a faithfulness to southern Italian traditions. The procession, we are told, recalled the great traditional religious processions of southern Italy, just as the Italian American societies consecrated to particular saints resembled those in Italy. The people were urged to relive their Italian past, to reaffirm their Italian selves during the festa. They were told to recall the little shrines to Mary scattered all over Italy–in valleys, beside rivers, deep in forests–and in this way to travel again the spiritual geography of their youth as they worship at the shrine on 115th Street. Though they could not actually be in southern Italy, they could behave as though they were there; indeed, there are times when the author of the parish bulletin actually confused the two places, so that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether he is writing about Italy or East Harlem.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, 168-169.

Journey to la festa

“The devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street met the emotional and moral needs of a population that had emigrated. In the earliest period, from its founding to the time of Dalia’s pastorate, which paralleled the first period of Italian immigration to the closing of the gates, when men were coming alone to New York, participation in the cult assuaged the complicated guilt of the immigrants. The devotion allowed men to be faithful to a woman on these shores as a sign of their faithfulness to the women they had left in Italy. Attendance at their mother’s house located the men in the familial strategy of immigration: they had come because of their families and they could remember and acknowledge this in the devotion. In the earliest writings extant at the shrine, the church is identified strongly as ‘mamma’s house,’ and la Madonna is called by the familiar and childlike nostra mamma’. By initiating and attending the devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street, the men were declaring their faithfulness not only to their women but also to the moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women. The dimly glowing vigil lights which the earliest male immigrants kept burning in their rooms before images of the Madonna and the saints recalled the men to their moral culture: each night, with the sound of the elevated train coming in through the open windows, the noise of the street and the glowing of the gas factory’s stacks, the red lamps summoned the men to be faithful to the values of their people. The devotion and the festa confirmed this and allowed the men to act out their faithfulness.

…There is a way in which the entire festa recapitulated the experience of immigration. The annual celebration also involved a journey… Al of my informants stressed the fact that faithful came from ‘all over’ to the annual celebration, and they particularly wanted to call to my attention long trips that involved crossing water–from Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey; in each case, it was emphasized that a bridge had to be crossed or a boat taken but that this did not deter the faithful.

“By the principle of ‘inverted magnitudes,’ the signification of great realities or events by the smallest symbols or objects, the difficulties encountered in getting to the shrine opened out in meaning for the immigrants and played out again the movement of their migration, ending, as we were told their migration had ended, at their mother’s feet. The younger generations were invited to share in a very physical way the central event of their parents’ histories both by participating in the annual procession as children and by undertaking their long journeys back to Harlem for the devotion in later years.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 163-165.

 

Blood ties

“According to the values of the domus-centered society, there were no individuals in Italian Harlem, only people who were part of a domus. Italians had a very intimate sense of the way a person was formed in and according to the values of the domus. Many in the first generation believed that a mother’s blood was mixed in with the milk her child suckled. This blood-sharing was thought to be the essential foundation of personal identity and morality. ‘Blood’ was the symbol of this deepest intimacy: it was the spiritual expression of value placed on family solidarity and loyalty in the domus-centered society.

“Individuals were warned that to violate the blood bonding of the domus meant disaster. There were a number of levels to this blood unity. It referred, first of all, to the blood-bond existing between mother and child, the essential blood tie; it also meant the special bonds that exist among siblings: the brother-sister relationship or the brother-brother relationship was thought to be closer than the father-son or father-daughter relationship because brother and sisters were of the same blood, had suckled their mother’s blood. But a blood-bond was also thought to exist among Italians. According to one of Covello’s sources: ‘Italians must marry Italians. They may be Sicilian, Calabresi, Neapolitans–but they have the same blood. They belong to the same nation. Hungarians should marry Hungarians. Jews marry Jews. Everyone in his blood.’ If one married outside the blood, one might not be able to incorporate his or her children into the domus and this meant that the blood violator and his or her offspring would be doomed to living like ‘animals.'”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 82.

Penitence as gratitude

“At the very rear of the procession walked the penitents. All of them walked barefoot; some crawled along their hands and knees; many had been walking all night. For the most part, it was the women who walked barefoot on the searing pavement, though one of my informants told me that men would do this if their wives insisted. In his words, ‘You do that, or you don’t get any food.’ Women bore huge and very heavy altars of candles arranged in tiered circles (‘like a wedding cake,’ one of my East Harlem sources told me) and balanced on their heads with the poise that had enabled them and their mothers to carry jugs of water and loaves of bread on their heads in southern Italy. Sometimes white ribbons extended out from the tiered candles and were held by little girls in white communion outfits. Some of the people in the rear had disheveled hair and bloodied faces, and women of all ages walked with their hair undone. Some people wore special robes–white robes with a blue sash like Mary’s or Franciscan-style brown robes knotted at the waist with a cord; they had promised to wear these robes during the procession, though some had promised to wear their abitini for several months, or even a year. Although the rear of the procession was the area designated for these practices, a penitential motif characterized the entire procession and, indeed, the entire day.

“This behavior was governed by the vows people made to la Madonna. The seriousness with which these promises were made and kept simply cannot be overemphasized. All my East Harlem sources told me, matter-of-factly, that people did all this, that they came to East Harlem–and kept coming even when Italians grew frightened of Spanish Harlem and knew that the neighborhood was no longer theirs–because they had made a vow. One of my sources described the promise like this:

You see, these elderly women would make a vow, you know, they would pray for something, say, if I ever get what I’m praying for… you know, a son was sick or someone had died [at this point, another former East Harlem resident interjected, ‘Like some kind of a penance’], and they would amke a vow… they say, maybe for five Mount Carmels we would march with th eprocession without shoes. In other words, do some sort of a penance to repay for the good that they’d gotten.

“In later years, as the older generation passed away or became too sick to come to the festa, their children came and kept their promises for them.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 9-10.

Devotional candles

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who had been healed–or hoped to be healed–by the Madonna of headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and the wax body parts.

“The most sought-after items were the big and enormously heavy candles that the faithful bought, carried all through the blistering July procession, and then donated to the church. There was a wax factory at 431 East 115th Street, and candles were available at several stores on the block near the church. According to one of my informants: ‘They sold candles. They did a tremendous business in candles for years.’ In the June 1929 issue of the parish bulletin, in time for that year’s celebration, Nicola Sabatini, who owned a religious articles shop at the prime location of 410 East 115 Street, advertised: ‘The faithful who need candles of any size, votive articles of wax and silver, and other religious articles can get them here directly at reasonable prices and made to their specifications.’ The weights of the candles chosen by the people corresponded to the seriousness of the grace they were asking, and this was carefully specified in the vows made to the Madonna. A bad problem or a great hope required an especially heavy candle and weights could reach fifty or sixty pounds or more. Sometimes the candles weighed as much as the person for whom prayers and sacrifices were being offered. In 1923, for example, Giuseppe Caparo, sixty-nine years old, who had recently fallen from the fifth floor of a building without hurting himself, offered the Madonna a candle weighing as much as he did, 185 pounds. If, as often happened, the candles were too long or two heavy to be carried by one person, other family members and friends would share the burden.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, pp. 3-4.